Digital or Print: Putting Readers in the Driver’s Seat

By Molly Berger

Getting students to engage with their reading, to read deeply as we say, has always been a multifaceted challenge. Now we add one more complication: the impact of digital texts on comprehension. The issue is driving much research and is frequently debated. However, the question should not be whether print or digital is better, because our students will be reading both. It should be, “How do we read well in any format?”

Goal setting and the metacognitive and reflective questions in the ERWC Assignment Template lend themselves to delving into this issue with students because they put the student in the driver’s seat. It is up to the individual to determine what works best for them. Additionally, to help students in determining this, we must ask the students two questions:

How do you read best?

            and then,

How do you know this?

While students may be able to voice their preferences, few have truly explored their options or can articulate how or why it works for them. Most simply read when the teacher says to. Others pretend to read and wait for the class discussion to get the gist of the assignment. So how do we develop student motivation and skill to be self-directed readers? How do we become the warm demanders that both expect and support this?

I shouldn’t be but always am surprised by the students’ ability to solve their own learning challenges. My role is to present them with options and guide them in finding what works best for them. Modeling strategies and allowing students time to share with each other what works gives them the opportunity to understand themselves as learners, which results in self-knowledge and a lasting impact.

Consider these strategies and let the students tell you what works from there.

Manipulating Text

One of the strongest assets of digital texts is the ability to manipulate the way we see it. From font size and background color to layout and design, students can choose what helps them focus and comprehend. Modeling this process is key as some students may choose what they think looks good compared to what actually helps them read. For example, they may love creative fonts such as Edwardian Script or Curlz MT, but these will most likely be difficult to read in longer texts. Have them set criteria for how they will know their design choice works best and then experiment. Have them consider

  • Background color: decrease the contrast of print and background.
  • Font size: find the just right size
  • White space: manage by line spacing

Ebook devices or apps have reader choices for this. Web browsers allow for increasing of font size but note the reader view features explained below for further options.

Managing Distractions

Our students are so used to advertising and links in their reading that they may not even see them as distractions. Modeling how to eliminate advertising and when to open a link or skip it, can focus their attention on this.

  • Block pop-ups: Check the security section of whichever browser you are using. (Search for block popups in Chrome or whichever browser you use.)
  • Open the reader view:  This feature will take out the advertising, pictures, buttons, etc. (This is in the title bar of Firefox and Explorer and is an extension in Chrome.) Reader view also changes the font and background. Click here for an example of reader view.
  • Determine when to click or not click a link: Have the students consider if following a link will help their comprehension or interrupt it. Model this with examples of how some links may clarify meaning as with definitions and how others can lead us completely off track. Have the students develop their own guide for whether to click while they read, after they read, or not at all.
  • Practice highlighting and notetaking: Whether it is one of many apps or browser extensions available (Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep, etc.), a note taker in an ebook or whether students simple copy and paste the text into a Word or Google doc, getting adept at highlighting and notetaking will boost student comprehension and retention of what they read.

Ultimately, the success of comprehending digital or print texts derives not only from skill but from students accepting their role in their learning. If we want our students to be able to dip their “oar into the water” (They Say, I Say,  Graff and Birkenstein) in rhetorical reading, discussion and writing, then they need to see themselves as connected readers (Connected Reading, Turner and Hicks) who make decisions on how they read well based on their own experience.

Molly Berger is a secondary English teacher currently working as an English Language Arts specialist and program coordinator at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia, Washington. As a Washington lead for the ERWC i3 Grant, she has served on the ERWC Steering Committee, supported Washington teachers as a coach and workshop presenter, and written modules.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 4th edition. W.W. Norton, 2018.

Turner, Kristin Hawley and Troy Hicks. Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World. National Council of Teachers of English, 2015.

Reading Like an Author

By Chris Street

Have you ever tried to explain to someone else why you liked a particular piece of writing? It can be difficult to find the language needed to explain exactly why a particular piece resonated with you. Trying to discern how authors make their writing powerful, beautiful, emotional, or descriptive is tough to do.

Yet when we demystify authors’ styles we can learn how writers accomplish the incredible things they do with words. For example, by looking at how writers use active verbs, sentence variety, precise nouns, rhythms of language, vocabulary, organizational schemes, sensory details, repetition, parallel structures, and punctuation—we can begin to acquire the language needed to discuss the ways in which their writing appeals to us.

Another way to consider this is to ask yourself a question: If you were going to replicate the style of a piece of writing that you admire without copying the exact words, how would you do it? It’s not easy to focus your attention to look at a piece of writing this way, but this is what careful readers do when they are trying to learn the craft of writing.

Reading like an author is a skill that all aspiring writers learn to do. Reading like an author helps you to discover different stylistic devices, find various ways to engage readers, and leaves you with a greater awareness of how to target your writing for specific audiences.

As teachers you are all already accomplished readers. Now, I’d invite you to try reading like an author.

For teachers interested in learning to write articles for publication in professional journals this would mean reading the kinds of journals that might publish one’s work. For teachers more interested in writing successful grant proposals this might mean reading previously funded grant proposals as a way to internalize the features of writing that separate the successful from the unsuccessful proposals. The same would be true of aspiring bloggers or web site developers. The models are all around us. All we need to do is read them carefully—as potential authors—and we will surely learn important lessons about the craft of writing.

Since part of our work as English teachers is to support students as they strive to make connections between the texts they read and the writers we want them to appreciate, we can apprentice students in the task of reading like an author by modeling for them how this text-based task is performed. As with all complex literacy tasks, learning to read like an author takes time and guidance. The strategic guidance we can offer students is that much more powerful when we are able to model for students what it means to “think rhetorically,” as an author would. As we uncover the power of an author’s craft for students, we enable students to feel that they are personally part of a larger discourse community, or conversation. And when we help unlock the power behind an author’s words, we allow students to feel they have increased power over the texts they read. Reading like an author can indeed be a transformative event for developing writers, allowing them to see themselves as rhetorical writers who can apply their newly learned skills as they write with increased confidence, skill, and power.

But students are not likely to learn to read like an author unless we model for them what this looks like. As an example, here’s one of my favorite pieces of writing and a few words describing why I like it:

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” (The Outsiders)

The opening words to S.E. Hinton’s short novel immediately ensnare me in her world—the world of a teenager coming to grips with a gritty reality. The crisp words offer a glimpse of the main character and narrator while hinting at the struggle of good versus evil that will occupy the mind of the young story teller.

Hers is a book that tells the truth about life through a teenager’s eyes. The eyes that adjust to the bright sun are Hinton’s eyes, the eyes of a teenager who wrote The Outsiders “because I wanted to read it.”

Using just 29 words, she makes me feel the same way.

Chris Street is a Professor of Secondary Education at California State University, Fullerton, where he also directs the masters program in secondary education. He helps lead the statewide implementation of ERWC as a professional learning facilitator, module author, and member of the ERWC Steering Committee.